Location Ambiguity in Social Media Emergency Alerts

Most social media posts are not well defined by geography.  When you follow someone, you might know where they live or you might not.  And if you are searching on keywords, you’re pretty much at the mercy of the post’s content.

Which raises this interesting problem:  if you see a posting for an accident in Madison, how do you know where that is?

There are at least 20 municipalities as well as 19 counties with the name “Madison”.  Other popular city/town names and the count of their use (municipal only) in the US are in the list below:

  • Madison           20
  • Clinton             20
  • Clayton            19
  • Marion             18
  • Auburn            16
  • Jackson           16
  • Oxford             16
  • Washington     16
  • Springfield       16
  • Greenville        15

More than 1800 municipalities (cities, towns, villages and boroughs) share a name with at least one other municipality in the US.  And over 400 US counties share a name with some other county.   Throw in some tweets from the UK, Canada, Ireland etc. and the possibilities for confusion run into many thousands.

One clear implication of this is that folks who post emergency alerts for social media should include their state.  That doesn’t completely eliminate ambiguity (there are two towns named “Nebo” in NC for example), but it reduces it by at least 99%.  It only takes 2 characters to add the state postal abbreviation.  And no one looking at a post for Washington County should have to wonder if it’s for ME, VA, TX or IN.






Help Test the US National Emergency Alert Registry

We’re sponsoring a new service that is very exciting (to us, anyway).

The US National Emergency Alert Registry is a new, free service developed to enable anyone in the US to sign up for local emergency notification messages, anywhere they are available.

The idea for this is pretty simple.  Although thousands of cities, counties and other governments offer emergency alerts to residents, the sign up pages for these are hard to find and there are thousands and thousands of them.  It’s even possible to have two or more sign up pages for the same area, so you might think you’re covered and not get all the messages.

When you register on this site (http://www.usnear.org), your information is transferred to the local emergency alert service for your area.  You can even sign up for multiple addresses (like your home and office, or a vacation home, etc.).

And you’re also encouraged to sign up people you love who might not otherwise sign up (like your kids.)

The service is currently in beta, but is available to use.  Please sign up and help test it.

Local (County/City/School) Alerts vs. Wireless Emergency Alerts

Alert:  don’t be afraid to sign up for your local community’s emergency notification system!

I’ve lost count of the number of Twitter postings about phone alerts that have woken people up, scared the daylights (or less nice stuff) out of them, and have otherwise messed up their karma.

We get it.  Those alerts can be scary.  (BTW, you can turn them off if you want to.)  They come from a federal system that we think is awesome, but still has a few bugs yet (loud, scary alarms being one of those.)

There’s another kind of alert system, though, that you need to sign up for.  And here’s what’s cool:

  • It won’t cost you anything (except text messaging charges if you pay per text);
  • It won’t scare you;
  • It’s likely to be more relevant and complete, because it comes from your local police, sheriff, 911 center, etc.;
  • You can get the alerts like normal text or email messages so they don’t drive you nuts;
  • In some places, you can even get an app for your smartphone.

Thousands of counties, cities and other public safety agencies are spending millions of dollars to send you warnings about nasty stuff like severe weather, downed power lines, traffic hazards, shooters on the loose and other dangers.  But you’re not going to find out about any of that unless you sign up.  And signing up is easy.

There are thousands of local sign up pages, but there is also a single national page you can use.  Sign up for this one and they will pass your information on to the local sign up page for your area.  Just click here.

So don’t get the two confused.  Your local public safety people want to keep you safe.  Help them do their job.  Sign up now.


The National ENS Pricing Survey

When I joined Hyper-Reach six months ago, I was consistently told that we were usually much less expensive than other leading vendors of emergency notification services.  So I wanted to verify that and also be able to prove it.

To do that, we scoured the Internet, looking for news stories about communities that bought these services and what they paid for it.  We figured – rightly, it turned out – that because the buyers are public agencies, the cost of the services would be covered by the media.  And once we found a news story, we also went to see if we could find other data, such as meeting minutes, budget documents, etc.

Now we have over 300 price points from around the country and here’s what we’ve found so far:

  1. Pricing for emergency notification varies a lot from county to county, city to city, etc.;
  2. Some of the price variations can be explained, but others are a real puzzle;
  3. Even buying from the same vendor, it’s possible to have a difference of more than 5 times on a per capita basis;
  4. And yes, Hyper-Reach is generally less expensive than most comparable services.

Since I used to run marketing research at a very large company, I wanted more rigorously-collected data.  So we decided to launch a survey of every county and city big enough to afford emergency notification services.  And we’re asking for your help.  In exchange, we’ll give you a copy of the results.  We’ll also give you a copy of the early research we’ve gathered so far.

To complete the survey, just go to this link and fill out the form.  You can fill it out anonymously or not, as you choose.  There’s even a page to skip the survey and just request the results.

Thanks in advance for your help.  We see this as a “win-win”.  No matter who your vendor is, you’ll be better off knowing what you should be paying for this important service.  And since our pricing is a bargain, we’ll get the benefit of showing that definitively.

Maybe the mobile carriers need to adjust their Wireless Emergency Alert settings?

Below is a sampling of actual Twitter postings just from today (small edits for spelling and obscenity).

  • Just got an emergency alert that nearly made me pee my bed. Not cool guys.
  • that flash flood warning alert is scary
  • Damn that flood alert scared the sh** out of me
  • That emergency alert woke me up
We’re big proponents of Wireless Emergency Alerts, but we’re also concerned that the public actually appreciates these things.  While there are some postings we’ve seen that are positive, most of tweets we’re seen so far are either neutral or negative. (A lot of them can be boiled down to “wow”.)
Twitter posts are hardly a representative sample of the US, but for the purposes of emergency notification they do reflect one of the most under-reached segments of the population: young adults.  These are the exact people who are most likely to be “wireless only” (meaning they won’t have a landline at home), and the among the least likely to register for a local community’s emergency alert service.  So WEA (Wireless Emergency Alerts) are among the most best methods available to reach these folks.
And since local emergency and public safety agencies can sign up to send WEAs (ask us for information on this), they are a great adjunct tool to the classic mass notification tools, such as broadcast telephone calls.
But since a mobile phone user can turn off most of the alerts – if they choose – it might be good if the alert tones that the carriers pick were less unpleasant.  The last thing we want is to see mass numbers of people turning WEA off.

A simple explanation for alerts on your phone

Does this sound familiar?

  • “We’re driving to Idaho and its raining kinda hard, then my dad gets a “alert” on his phone saying there might be a tornado!!”
  • “I just got an emergency notification.. What??”
  • “An amber alert just set my phone off and I honestly thought the world was ending.”
  • “Anyone else get the terrifying amber alert on their phone”

If you’ve seen one of these alerts, here’s what’s going on:
1) The Federal government and the phone companies have worked together to create what are called “Wireless Emergency Alerts”.

2) The alerts only go to some phones.  The phones that get the alerts:

  • …are capable of getting the messages.  Older phones might not get them.  Even some smartphones don’t get them.
  • …are in the range of cell phone towers selected for the alert.  If you get a flash flood warning, that’s supposed to be for the area you are in when you get the message.
  • …have the message feature turned on.  Not all phone carriers turns on all the messages automatically, though most do.

3) The messages are supposed to be about an emergency.  Most alerts today come from the National Weather Service and some Amber Alert agencies. But local governments can send messages, too, once they are approved by the Federal government and lots of counties have signed up.   The rule is that the alert has to be about an immediate threat to life or property.  So if you get a message, it’s about something important and it’s happening or it’s going to happen soon.

4) The messages are short (90 characters).  So some of them don’t have much detail.  Check the news if you need to know more.

5) The messages don’t cost anything to phone customers.  The government pays for it.

6) The President can send messages too.   But that’s for really BIG emergencies and no president has ever done it.

7) You can turn off the messages that come from everyone other than the President.

Thousands of counties and cities also have a separate emergency notification system that will send you a text (SMS) messages or a phone call when there’s an emergency situation.  Since every community has their own website, we’re sponsoring a new website called the US National Emergency Alert Registry (www.usnear.org).  It will be ready in a few weeks.  Please sign up.

Seriously? Why An App-Only Approach to Emergency Notification Doesn’t Work

We just read a news story that’s completely misleading and wanted to throw in our 2 cents.

It seems a number of local governments have signed up for an emergency notification provider that works through a smartphone app (iOS and Android).  And the news items suggest that these governments have chosen this as an alternative to the so-called “reverse 911” systems (outbound calls for notification).

Let’s go through the numbers and see if that works:

  • At last check about 92% of US adults have mobile phones;
  • 53% of those have smart phones (this number will go up over time);
  • While it’s impossible to say how many folks will download a specific app, over 60% of Apple apps have never been downloaded even once;
  • Of the apps that are downloaded, emergency notification doesn’t even make the top
  • In most communities, less than 10% (really, it’s closer to 2%) sign up for emergency alerts;

So – using some optimistic assumptions – if 20% of smartphone users in a community download the notification app, alerts sent through that app will reach less than 10% of the community.  And 20% is a stretch.

The point is not that an emergency notification app is a bad idea.  It’s a very good idea.  So good, we’ve developed our own.

But an app alone is not going to reach most of the community.

A truly comprehensive emergency notification approach needs to be able to broadcast messages via phone, text, email, IPAWS (Wireless Emergency Alerts), SMS and apps.  And it’s critical to promote these tools to the community to reach people who would not otherwise download an app or register for alerts.

And TV and radio, etc. (even sirens in some locales) all have a part.

Apps are good, but they one part of a much larger picture.

What Happens When Local Public Safety Can Use Wireless Emergency Alerts?

Wireless Emergency Alerts are becoming big news.  This is because the public is starting to receive them more and more frequently.

Just get on Twitter and search for “emergency alerts” or “emergency notification”.  You’ll get hundreds of hits, including many from people who’ve been scared out of their wits by some of the sounds coming form their phones.

But we’ve only just begun.  Most of the alerts so far are from the National Weather Service or are Amber Alerts about missing kids.

Under the FEMA program by which these alerts are being sent, local police, 911 and other agencies can sound out alerts too. And while the rules require that these agencies only use the alerts when there is imminent threat of loss of life or property, that can be a pretty low bar.

We’ve been compiling a list of all the ways that emergency notification systems get used today and it’s surprisingly long.   Here’s a sample:

  • Wild, poisonous or rabid animals on the loose;
  • Criminal activity, either active (shooter on the loose) or a recent pattern;
  • Weather hazards, including tornadoes, thunderstorms, heat waves, blizzards, extreme cold and their effects;
  • Environmental hazards, including chemical, fuel, and explosive releases;
  • Public health risks, such as contagious diseases;
  • Utility problems, including downed power lines and contaminated water.

This isn’t a complete list.  So far, we’ve compiled 136 specific types of emergencies that have resulted in some kind of notification, of which we think about 75+/- would qualify as a potential imminent threat.

We’ll bravely predict that some agencies will overuse the WEA capability and others will be reluctant to send out messages even when they are warranted.

So far, less than 5% of the nation’s counties and less than 1% of cities have applied for permission to use the system.  It will be interesting to see what happens as that number grows.




Another reason the shift to “wireless only” will keep on moving

An article in yesterday’s NY Times shows why landlines will continue to dwindle and mobile phones take their place.

Although people are willing to put up with the comparatively poor quality of mobile phones, this article shows three ways that mobile quality is improving:

1) Getting a better signal.

There are two options here.  The major carriers all offer a  way to get what is effectively a cell phone signal using your broadband connect.  Or you can buy a signal booster that works for multiple carriers.

2) Higher quality voice.

There something coming called HD Voice.  It’s already available for some phones, but will only really add value when lots of phones and carriers are using it.  And that’s coming, though perhaps not till 2015 or so.

3) Cheat.

You can route your cell phone calls to your landline phone.  Of course, lots of people don’t have a landline phone (and that’s the issue we’re dealing with at Hyper-Reach), but we’re guessing that the same routing approach can work with a Skype number or Google voice.

The point here is that as people keep shifting toward mobile and away from landlines, there will be an increasing number of solutions to objections of the folks who are holding out.  They may not address everyone’s concerns (landlines are still much more reliable), but for emergency notification services, the shift to “mobile only” doesn’t have to be 100% to be a crisis.


A Normal Person’s Explanation for Emergency Alerts on Your Phone

Is this you?

  • “I just got an emergency notification.. What??”
  • “An amber alert just set my phone off and I honestly thought the world was ending.”
  • “Anyone else get the terrifying amber alert on their phone”
  • “Tonight I got my first ever phone alert from the national weather service.  kinda weird/scary”

If you’ve gotten one of these alerts, you might be wondering what’s going on.  Here’s a quick guide:

1) Wireless Emergency Alerts are the result of work by your wireless carrier, the FCC, FEMA and some other government agencies.  FEMA has created the network and the carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc.) are cooperating.

2) The alerts go to phones that fit into these categories:

– First, they are capable of getting the messages.  Older phones may not get them.  Even some smartphones don’t get them.

– Second, the phone is in the range of towers selected for the message.  The messages are supposed to go based on where you are.  So if you get a flash flood warning, that’s supposed to be in the area you are in.

– Third, you didn’t turn off (or you did turn on) the messages.  Not every carrier turns on all the messages by default, though we think that most do.

3) The messages are supposed to be about an emergency.  Mostly right now, they are coming from the National Weather Service and some state Amber Alert agencies. But local governments can send messages, too, once they are approved by FEMA, and over 150 counties have signed up.   The rules, according to FEMA, is that they have to be about an imminent threat to life or property.  So if you get a message, it’s about something important to someone.

4) The messages are short (90 characters).  So some of them are pretty cryptic.  Check the news if there’s not much detail.

5) The messages don’t cost you anything directly.  But some of them might cost you some sleep (many reports of noisy alarms).

6) The President can send messages too.  As far as we know, he hasn’t done that yet.

7) You can turn off the messages that come from everyone other than the President.

If you live in one of several thousand counties or cities that have signed up for an emergency notification system (brand names such as Hyper-Reach, Cassidian, Everbridge, etc.), you can also get text (SMS) messages or a phone call when there’s an emergency situation.  Since every community has their own website, we’re sponsoring a new website called the US National Emergency Alert Registry (www.usnear.org).  It will be ready in a few weeks.  Please sign up.